Thursday, November 30, 2017

Online Testing

This one is a bit of an evergreen, but ‘tis the season for chopping down evergreens.  I’d like to chop this one down once and for all.

We have online classes for which all of the graded work is done online.  But we also have online classes in which students are required to be physically present, either on campus or at a designated (and sometimes expensive) testing center, to take tests.  

Every single semester, we wind up with disgruntled students arguing for refunds for online classes when they discover, upon getting the syllabus, that they have to be physically present at a given place and time to take a test.  As the students explain repeatedly, part of the reason they chose an online class was precisely so they wouldn’t have to show up.  Sometimes it’s a medical or physical issue and sometimes it’s a transportation issue, but either way, the “online class” label feels like false advertising.

They have a point.

When I ask the faculty whose courses require onsite testing why they require it, the answer is nearly always a concern about cheating.  In a classroom or a proctored testing center, they argue, most cheating can be either deterred or caught; online, though, students can get away with a lot.  Academic integrity matters, so they just can’t bring themselves to go fully online.

They also have a point.

Which puts me in a tough position.  Academic integrity absolutely matters, and I have no illusions that all students are as pure as the driven snow.  But I also have to agree that requiring students to come in for a class advertised as online feels deceptive.

We’ve adopted a “lockdown browser” that prevents a student on a given device from looking at anything else on that device except the exam.  We even have a system that uses the student’s webcam to take still photos at unannounced intervals during the exam, making it very unlikely that a student could consult a second device undetected.  But even with our own mini panopticon, some faculty remain unconvinced.

Philosophically, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of just issuing some sort of diktat about what they can and can’t grade.  That gets to a level of interference in a class that I would resent deeply if it were imposed on me.  But the issue of “false advertising” is real.

So I’m looking at two ideas, and hoping my wise and worldly readers have better ones.

The first is to list any section with required onsite testing as “hybrid,” rather than “online.”  It comes closer to the actual truth of the matter.  Save the “online” label for sections that are purely online.  It strikes me as a way to preserve academic freedom while finally putting to rest any claims of misleading advertising.  If you want to require onsite exams in your online class, that’s fine, but you have to label it a hybrid.  Fair is fair.

The second is to help skittish online faculty come up with better ways to assess student work, so the idea of proctoring becomes irrelevant.  Many classes have long involved papers that are written outside the view of a proctor, so it can be done.  

So I’ll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers.  Have you found, or seen, innovative ways to assess student learning online to get around the dilemma of the proctored test?